The Real Deal with Eve Packer by Jeff Grunthaner

The Real Deal with Eve Packer  

I can’t escape the thought that the title of Eve Packer’s latest poetry collection, new nails, refers to rusting metal, to the accretion of time gathering over old wounds. I recently had the chance to interview Eve, and she assured me that “nails” was meant in a cosmetic sense. Still, the poems in the book decidedly revolve around the theme of time; and due to the social carnage which they document, it makes sense to think about them as “stabs” at a certain kind of hyper-realism. Eve herself told me as much in an email:

“what also interests me, which we touched on, but specifically, is to make 'poems' abt subjects that noone thinks of as fit for, the subject of, poetry its that transgressive thing--tho it can be really simple: like the sopranos sonnets, or the poems in the first section, if p, then q, etc”

 

Eve Packer’s poetry, then, has a memento quality about it. If it were painting, it would approach something resembling photographic realism. But the fact that she’s using words makes her art less constricting than photographic realism allows for. Apart from the subjects she writes about, her writing style seems to condense language to its pure essentials, even obviating its existence in the face of what it describes. With a pictorial quality similar to a text message, her poetry often occupies that precarious place between visual art and language. What’s essential is that it capture the uneasy sense of loss that time always inflicts upon the present. In Eve’s own words: “Time is always eluding you…a function of age…of living in New York, and feeling it change.”

Who is Eve Packer, and what is her place in the cosmos?

 

"my place in the cosmos: i'd say, im a minor poet, voice, (but) in a maybe-noone-ever's gone-there-before key”

 

Bronx-born, Eve has spent the majority of her life in New York City, traveling only for reasons of school (she completed her undergraduate studies in Michigan, and then went on to study abroad in London). “And that really explains…not very much, but maybe a little. So I’ll go into more detail about that…” Of Eastern European descent—Jewish, in fact—Eve’s parents started out living in the village in the 1940s, and then later moved to the Bronx. “My parents were actually very…my mother was an artist. My father was really a scientist, but interested in the arts.” Eve’s father decided that they needed a way to support themselves, so he became a firefighter. “He hadn’t finished college yet, because of the depression, but he went back when he retired; and he certainly did finish college. He got a graduate degree. He was an interesting person… When I was little my father was a big hero. He was a firefighter and my mother was a struggling artist.”

 

“In the Bronx at that time where lots of people… Leftist-leaning people, and Jazz musicians lived in the Bronx. Nevertheless, it was the South East Bronx. It was rough. This is around the 1950s.”

 

Eve originally set forth into life as an aspiring actress, and came into poetry primarily in relation to theater and performance. She started out writing at Studio Recherché, but her reading had already been influenced even earlier by Tom Clark. “Tom Clark would say read this, or I’m corresponding with this guy [Ted B. or Ron P.], or read Creely.” Her first poem was written in a diner at 10th Ave. and 52nd St., shortly after her son was born:

 

"You know actresses really are like hookers, in one way only, we are not allowed to have children. Visible kids. Its like one of those movie marquees on 42nd: I was a Mother. A Closet Mother. I hid my Guilty Secret from the world. Theres a neon sign blinking in yr mind: Having Children Verboten Das Est...."

 

Already, then, when Eve first committed pen to paper, she was sounding themes that would continue throughout her writing career: femaleness, the tension between love and work, and the quotidian details that make life at once horrifying and beautiful. These themes continue into her most recent collection.

The sparseness of the poetry in new nails comes partly from its performances potential, and partly from what Eve calls a quality of “femaleness” (as opposed to feminism). The poems are deliberately composed of short words; and their use of abbreviation derives from the fact that Eve writes her poems very fast. Consider, for example—

 

ice-share

 

thats what

I got

of you,

one in a long

parade

of painted paper dolls,

pygmies in

glass jars,

first the fire

then the ice-

share

is what i, any

female, gets

of u

 

Strangely, the bitterness of the poem is tempered by the familiar “u,” which punctuates in a savvy manner what would otherwise exhaust itself as sentiment. In this way, the poem lifts from the page and takes off into the world. (With its jagged, sculptured edges, the pictorial form of the poem is also appreciable: like the inconclusiveness of choice.)  The “femaleness” of the poem is apparent not only in its subject-matter, but formally in the way imperfection is tempered into something visibly right. The poem is almost fussy, which feeds into its theme.

Eve’s style, its stripped-down quality, derives largely from the fact that her poems are written to be performed. She’s released several CDs of spoken word set against the sinuous jazz of Noah Howard; but here, at least on the tracks that I’ve heard, her voice and words are generally overshadowed by the music. Her style of poetry really only comes into its own when it’s performed, informed by the spontaneity of the moment, which no studio environment can simulate. The deliberate starkness of her language prioritizes the spoken voice rather than the written symbol—and is often condensed into a kind of text-message symbolism expressive of a feminine absorption in minute particulars:

 

“i’m having my nails done

& this couple walks in,

he’s a hunk & she is beyond

beyonce pretty, so crazy-glue

bubble-wrapped in love a spell

is cast

 

here at new nails

between the manicures & pedicures,

we are

mesmerized

entranced…

 

As for Eve’s poetic method, she writes spontaneously, in terms of one continuous idea or moment of inspiration. Of the six sections in new nails, for example, the one titled “window 9/11” comprises poems

 

written on the spot, at the exact time whatever is in the poem was happening--the first one in this book (9/11) was written that very morning, then added to in the night, and very early the next morning. also, at the time, i answered hotline phones at st vincents starting that night, and thru that friday nite, when they stopped--the middle poem, st. vincents hotline, comes out of that

 

This is characteristic of Eve’s poetry: a sort of Frank O’Hara quality pervades them; her poems are written on the wing, so to say. Unlike O’Hara, though, Eve’s poetry in new nails nowhere approaches a Symbolist elusiveness—expressing rather a literal series of events occurring in New York and throughout the world. In fact, there’s a decided narrative to the organization of the poems in the book, despite the fact that the poems were written over the span of the last 15 years. Reading new nails, I had the impression that book began pre-9/11, then took account of the World Trade disaster, and finally made a stab at formulating the kind of wisdom there was to glean from such tragedies. As Eve herself notes: “The last part of the book deals with the aftermath of disaster.”

Eve hates writing prose, yet one of the more interesting, and more revealing poems in new nails—as far as a representative attitude continued throughout the collection goes—is something of a prose-poem. True to her theatric origins, the poem was actually dictated into a tape-recorder and then transcribed onto the page. The poem is lineated, but un-revised:

 

“I got to be an actress & you just live

at 42nd I used to think it was so strange you know here you

are in this ‘respectable profession’ I guess you can see

its roots esp for women are definitely in whoredom cause that’s

the district so there you are going to yr audition on those streets

in the w. 50’s but you gotta walk by the 40’s on the way to the

 

subway, & you sorta squinch yrself up make yr field of vision

tiny like

a mini-horse w/blinder so you dont see the secret shame

marquees but also so noone will see or hit on you before you

manage to get downstairs toss yr token in the slot

ride home & say oh no that place doesnt exist, oh no my life has

nothinig

to do w/42nd— “

 

Here, the Frank O’Hara quality is palpable. There’s a decided “I do this I do that” structure to the events in the poem (similar to O’Hara’s “A Step Away from Them”). Eve’s aesthetic has a different pathos, however. In a man’s world, women have reason to fear the patriarchy surrounding them. The social power intrinsic to the male gender too often reveals itself violently, and for women to adapt to this state of affairs they have to flaunt what pacifies their oppressors, while at the same time concealing their personalities, even their genuine feelings. This is the world as Eve describes it in new nails: a world split into two camps, boys vs. girls, so to say, each side warring against the other, and each side declaring its right to conscience, integrity and respect. Women generally seem to end up losing out, though, as is evidenced in

 

XPress DVD Video Palace

Sex    Sex    Sex

 

do girls come in here

he nods, allkindsa girls,

 

they rent? we don’t rent

he says, buy only

 

Buns & Roses

sale $5.95

 

He said she said  Employ My Pussy

Ass-A-Thon   Fruit Sqeezin & Ass Fucking

 

You can’t write it down

he says

 

the doors open i say

its legal

 

i don’t know the legal,

legs up crossword puzzle on lap,

 

fixing red baseball cap

i don’t know the legal

 

but you can’t right it down

 

“That was the scariest of all, because they don’t like you as a female going into those shops. ‘You cant write it down.’”

 

In summation, then, new nails is poetry written with an eye to women’s place in the world. Gender mingles with historical details, and creates a species of poetry that is at once pictorial, expressive, and illuminating. Eve’s take on “femaleness” is nothing new for her, and new nails can be considered a continuation of the work she has been engaged with for quite some time now—in writing as well as in theater. Given her emphasis on women’s place within the world, though, should new nails be considered a feminist tract? I’ll let Eve speak for herself on the matter. When I asked her about the distinction between love and care in her writing, she wrote me the following email:

 

jeff, have been sort of marinating on yr question--i think youre far more 'analytic' than i am--so: i'll just say, like beckett, let the poems stand as they are-- but, i'll also add: we had talked about 'femaleness' so in many ways thats where its at, in all aspects, seen, not seen, heard, overheard, not heard, off-limits-- […] power and sex has to do with wantwantwant  now--its very powerful, the engine that drives the universe-- care, is by nature, more gentle is it less powerful--not less, but, different--you know, fire vs water--something like that--

As far as the content of her poetry goes, Eve’s intention in new nails is to explore the ramifications of care, and not to make a political issue of gender inequality. Her book thus ends with poetry—and whatever social or political implications her poems have only enrich the themes she’s given to explore. Her themes are her own, and are treated with an individual touch. Time, love, nostalgia, and most importantly, fortitude in the wake of tragedy—this is what new nails is about. Anyone who is not already familiar with Eve Packer's work should consider what she records here. new nails is poetry written with an eye to women’s place in the world. Gender mingles with historical details, and creates a species of poetry that it at once pictorial, expressive, and illuminating.

 

-Jeffrey Grunthaner

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